How HR transformed a ‘challenged nonprofit’ into a vibrant start-up

This exec led the people side of a business transformation at FARE, the leading nonprofit representing the food allergy community.
By: | March 31, 2021 • 6 min read

Less than two years ago, FARE—the nation’s leading research and educational organization in the food allergy space—underwent a 180-degree transformation: new leaders, staff reductions, a strategic reorganization. And HR was at the center of it all.

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Chief People Officer Dominique Rodriguez-Sawyer joined the agency in 2016 and took on the top HR job three years later. Working with the CEO, she helped lead the people aspect of the transformation—from a renewed commitment to employee engagement to a culture tune-up to bring employees in line with the organization’s pursuit of a start-up mindset. Today, FARE has funneled more than $100 million in donor gifts to food allergy research and is a national advocate for a community that encompasses 32 million Americans.

Before joining FARE, Rodriguez-Sawyer worked in professional management consulting and was an HR leader at the American Diabetes Association and previously Deloitte Consulting. She recently spoke with HRE about her career journey and FARE’s own transformation journey.

HRE: What initially attracted you to FARE? 

Dominique Rodriguez-Sawyer

Rodriguez-Sawyer: In 2016, the chief advancement officer of FARE at the time invited me to consider joining the organization. FARE was described to me as a dynamic nonprofit about to embark on a transformative journey and needed someone to lead their people resources. This opportunity appealed to me because I enjoy the challenges that come with turnarounds and start-ups. Throughout my career, most of my positions have been in the creation of departments, including a new training division and a change management group that incorporated an HR team within the larger unit. Working in HR during a restructuring or a start-up puts me on the frontline of employee problem-solving and working on innovative solutions and processes that improve the ability of teams to function effectively; once the dust settles, it is rewarding to see how HR has made a difference.

Related: Read more Insights from a CHRO.

HRE: What were a few of the biggest culture challenges as the organization made the leadership and staffing changes? And how did you tackle them?

Rodriguez-Sawyer: In 2018, FARE underwent a significant reorganization, which was not an easy feat and one of my greatest challenges. With 45% of the organization being laid off, how would we maintain morale and continue moving the needle on the critical work of our mission? Additionally, our incoming CEO was evolving FARE’s business approach from that of a challenged nonprofit to an energetic start-up. The most important thing to me was to treat outgoing employees with compassion and respect. The meetings were not easy, but I understood that feedback was coming from a place of pain and, of course, in the employees’ viewpoint, unfairness.

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Together with the director of operations and the CEO, we put a plan in place to offer assistance, including out-placement services, recommendation letters and a severance compensation package. For those remaining, we were honest and explained the plan to move FARE forward. At every step possible, we involved the staff as stakeholders, giving them input into the direction and actions.  We valued their commitment to seeing the mission of FARE continue to forge ahead and were determined to encourage the staff to be the most dynamic and successful individuals they could be in the new environment.

Today, the organization has made a complete turnaround, having raised $85 million against a $200 million goal in 24 months for food allergy research and education. We now have a larger, more diverse leadership, staff and board, including robust advocacy, communications, research and partnership teams. Turnarounds can be a tough road for all of us, yet ultimately, what is best for the public we serve.

HRE: What have been some of the unique HR challenges that nonprofits like FARE are facing during the pandemic that corporate partners may not be?

Rodriguez-Sawyer: Technical infrastructure: Nonprofits who didn’t have solid infrastructures to pivot from in-person events, summits and gatherings really struggled at the onset of the pandemic. Finding new mediums and avenues of keeping your constituents engaged even when you couldn’t meet in person was very important.

The financial health of the organization: I think, in general, nonprofits experience the same issues as corporate entities. Nonprofits took a financial hit as dollars that would typically come toward them were now redirected toward other forms of research like COVID research and community needs. Large disasters, whether tied to hurricanes or pandemics tend to constrict the available dollars for nonprofits. When you have reduced funding the question becomes, are the size of teams and departments still feasible? Staff become concerned about their jobs and how long the organization can keep them.

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The mental health of teams: It is important to address the mental state of employees, their concerns about the economy, needs for children being homeschooled, family members falling ill and longer workdays. All of these can contribute to employees feeling like they are in a pressure cooker.

HRE: How have you sought to keep employees connected to one another despite remote work during the pandemic?

Rodriguez-Sawyer: We’ve engaged our teams in several activities to keep employees connected and get to know each other, including watercooler virtual conversations where team members initiate and engage in fun discussion topics like “Where did you go to college?” “What are you binge-watching on TV?” and “What’s your favorite food group?” We all make it a point to remember special events and moments in staff lives like the birth of a child, the passing of a loved one. We remember birthdays through virtual cards that all colleagues sign along with a message. Also, we host events for FARE families such as a coloring contest involving school-aged children and informal conversation sessions [hosted by the CEO] to discuss shared experiences of family and work/life balance during challenging times like the pandemic or a health crisis.

Related: This is HR’s chance to be the ‘human voice in the room’

HRE: What are some objectives of FARE’s Blueprint for Access? Did HR play a role in this initiative?

Rodriguez-Sawyer: FARE’s Blueprint for Access was developed to help pave the way to equitable access for high-quality care for all patients living with food allergies—a guide toward change at the organizational, community, governmental and societal levels. Among its objectives are to identify inclusive strategies to build awareness, engage BIPOC stakeholders and partners, and expand interventions that improve care.

HR participated in every aspect of The Blueprint, from selecting and engaging speakers for a three-part virtual roundtable series on diversity, equity, inclusion and access to discussing human resource and talent-building practices to elevate DEIA.

HRE: If you hadn’t gone into HR, where do you think your career would have taken you?

Rodriguez-Sawyer: I would probably [be teaching] at the college level and be a professor of archeology, international journalism or history. I’ve always been curious and enjoy studies from the context of history, world events and issues that affect relationships between people, nations and regions.

HRE: What is your advice for aspiring HR leaders entering the field today?

Rodriguez-Sawyer: Take the time to understand the business of the organization you work in and really appreciate the greatest resource of the organization: its people. Never stop learning and honing your craft.  Work continually on enhancing your skillset. As change occurs, you will have new ideas and this will make you a valuable resource to your team, the staff and leadership.

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Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.